Offering Hope

On May 6 more than 100 humanitarians embarked on a new adventure as they touched down in a plane in South Sudan, hopped on a bike and headed for the local school—all from behind their computer screens at home. For Save the Children, adapting its service trips to a Covid-safe virtual environment to deliver charitable aid was critical. The organization prepared a film crew in order to produce an intimate experience that would take donors and interested members around the world to see the impact of their donations. Among those who attended this virtual event were members of the Save the Children Fairfield County Leadership Council (FCLC). Since its inception in 2016, its active core of sixteen have raised funds and awareness in the community as well as helped Save the Children provide life-saving humanitarian aid around the world.

“The response was overwhelming,” says Ann Marie Miles, senior director of individual philanthropy with Save the Children. Over the past year, Save the Children’s efforts in South Sudan reached more than 790,000 children, providing basic services, including food, health care and education opportunities. Some were former child soldiers, so child-protection programs helped to rehabilitate these traumatized youth thanks to a 2019 expansion of the Healing and Education through the ARTS (HEART) program—allowing participants to reclaim their childhoods. Along with addressing children’s well-being, Save the Children also launched family-tracing and reunification technology capable of connecting local police authorities and aid organizations with community leaders to identify these children in real time. This system improves their long-term protection.

For those participating in the virtual trip, such as FCLC Co-President Joan Panagos, seeing work in the field—delivering food, school supplies, medicine and other essential health and education infrastructure—highlighted the organization’s invaluable contributions to local affiliates. “This gave them the ability to understand, contribute and know that Save the Children already had the resources on the ground, knew how to get whatever the people needed and knew how to deploy that very effectively and quickly,” Panagos said. “You’ve got to bring a lot of tissues with you because you just see the great work they’re doing. It’s so lovely.”

left: Elementary school students participate in a health and nutrition game during Save the Children’s Summer Boost Camp. right: Save the Children Trustee and actress Jennifer Garner outside Save the Children programming for Afghan children and families in northern Virginia.

The Fairfield Leadership Council recognizes urgent needs in the United States, too—the virtual trip on August 25 focused on rural Tennessee and Kentucky and the need for enhanced early-childhood education. As its education programs moved online, Save the Children established a remote Summer Boost Camp to address learning losses. In these communities, food insecurity is coupled with the digital divide (a lack of stable Internet connection and access to technology). Some homes visited on trips are without basic resources, including books and technology for the children. According to Save the Children’s global 2020 survey, 80 percent of parent or caregiver respondents believe that due to the pandemic and limited resources at home, their child has “learned little or nothing.”

Save the Children’s troubling statistics inspired an outpouring of support and contributions from the Fairfield County community. “People felt this pent-up desire to help. We were all closed in, and they saw what was going on around them and they really wanted to get involved,” Panagos said. “We give people the opportunity to do whatever they want and help as much as they can.”

Save the Children revealed a shocking statistic: An estimated one in six American children is projected to be experiencing food insecurity in 2021 due to Covid, compared to one in seven children before the pandemic—and it has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic children, whom Save the Children identified as being twice as likely as their white peers to face hunger this year in the United States. “People realized how children were really victims of Covid-19. They’ve lost their education. They’ve lost their health. They’re losing their parents,” Miles said. “The pandemic brought to light the deep inequalities across the world, but also even in our own country, where the most vulnerable populations were really impacted by this crisis.”

Panagos said many in the Fairfield community reached out to the FCLC to contribute to food-aid efforts: “The teachers and the social workers who work with the program will tell you that the two meals that the children get there that day are probably the only two meals they’re having. If it weren’t for Save the Children, they would have nothing there.”

Joan Panagos (fourth from left) at a Save the Children benefit in Fairfield

Miles shared the grim reality of children out of school in developing countries: “They’re not just missing learning, the girls are being married off. Child marriage spiked again, child labor, trafficking. It’s really life-threatening in other countries. School is a form of protection for these children. It doesn’t just help them realize their future, it helps them stay alive today, so it’s really one of our most important priorities.”

According to Save the Children’s 2020 Global Girlhood Report, 2.5 million more girls are expected to be married in the next five years, but the organization helps children and their community by providing access to food security, livelihood assistance and child-protection programs aimed at identifying and protecting at-risk youth. The programs provide a path outside of child marriage through access to practical-skills education, in such areas as carpentry, agriculture, tailoring and masonry. With training and equipment, more families are taking the opportunity to create small businesses. The organization also supplements this work with advocacy for children’s rights at the national, state and local levels of government, including leading a national minimum age for marriage.

Jocelene makes a drawing during the Healing and Education Through the Arts (HEART) program

Save the Children’s efforts are possible in part because donors participated in the annual gala on November 19, 2020, held virtually because of Covid-19 restrictions. “A lot of philanthropists rise to the forefront in Fairfield County and really have been by our side when the need was there,” Miles said. “We are so fortunate to have a donor base made up of good, compassionate people who want to make the world a better place.”

Local teen volunteers also help. The Fairfield County Youth Leadership Council organizes and coordinates service trips. According to Bernie Park, founding president of the FCLC and current Executive Committee member, the council worked with twenty-three students representing eight schools in the 2020–21 school year. Their focus on early childhood education and issues such as gender equality and border advocacy aligns with the virtual trips.

Save the Children’s ability to tap into local youth resources as well as growth in local Fairfield participation have been paramount in its effectiveness during multiple crises, including the devastating 7.2 magnitude August earthquake in Haiti, which killed 1,900 people. With personnel on the ground in Haiti since 1978, the organization was well positioned to meet the needs of the ravaged community. Aid workers and an Emergency Health Unit Team delivered lifesaving supplies, including nutritional meals and infant-care kits, mosquito nets and sanitizer. It also provided temporary tarpaulin tents as violence in the streets threatened. According to the Save the Children Haiti Earthquake Report: “We are responding quickly to help children and families who have lost everything. […] Our staff see children crying in the street.” According to Leila Bourahla, Save the Children’s Haiti Country Director, “It is clear that this is a massive humanitarian emergency. We must respond quickly and decisively. Children are always the worst affected and I am very concerned about their immediate safety.”

The organization and the FCLC is guided by the core mission. “Responding to crises is what Save the Children does,” Miles said. In fundraising and providing aid at home and abroad, the organization has prevailed through difficult times with a sense of determination and hope. For Panagos, this comes from a simple truth donors and members share: “No matter where you are in the world, parents want the best things for their children, and just want them to be healthy and happy and go to school.”

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